DAYS 1 TO 8. DECEMBER 18TH to CHRISTMAS DAY 2020
The elation at getting under the wire, out of the tunnel, over the wall – maybe I feel the sensations of an escaping prisoner as I sit in Kenyan sunshine with happy people around me? I’ve a sense of extreme relief to be out of a country ruled by hysteria, political incompetence and populism, manipulation of right-wing mean-spiritedness, impending national suicide and grim darkness. Not to mention the endless rain and relentless media excitement. I tell you, Africa – for all ignorant Trump’s ‘Shithole Countries’ – gives impressions of stability, rationality and common sense now lacking in my embarrassing homeland.
There, I’ve said it. Now I’ll try to put it behind me and tell a story of hope, cheer and optimism. I promise. I’m back on my favourite continent, that has so obsessed my life these past three decades. Back in Africa!
Three weeks ago, I assessed the choices: winter in doom-laden UK as we head for disaster, or winter in the warmth – emotionally and physically – amongst my East Africa families and friends. It was really no choice at all.
Fortunately, it was Wednesday the 16th of December. Escape was still relatively simple and even without much frustration in those halcyon days, less than a week ago… Train to Heathrow and a faceless hotel at the edge of the A4, the lights of the terminals gleaming across the wet tarmac and a hotel take away – one of the worst meals of my life (a life with considerable occurrences of culinary tragedy). I’d walked to a distant petrol station through the drizzly, chill evening, along the wide A4. There, I considered the sandwiches as I bought a couple of bottles of beer, but dismissed them in favour of a hot meal. The ‘hot meal’ came slopped into a shiny brown cardboard box, was greasy, unappetising and unrecognisable as the item on the menu. A bendy plastic spoon to scrape out the £12 filth. Fuel, of sorts, to eat in disgust in the horror of a purple and grey room as traffic splashed along the Westway outside. Hindsight is so unhelpful.
There were a few formalities and extra forms to fill in to facilitate escape. I had to self-administer an expensive virus test (£120) on Monday last to allow me to board the plane on Thursday morning.
THAT brought me some ironic laughter… I’d taken the test: poking the swab around my tonsils until I gagged, and then far up my nostrils until my eyes watered and I sniffed for the next hour. Following the instructions, I placed the swab into its small sterile tube and screwed it shut. That was inserted into a well made plastic envelope with a tight self-adhesive seal. The envelope went into a small cardboard box, which was itself sealed into a heavy plastic envelope with another tight seal. It was self-addressed, by the private clinic making a fortune on this adversity, to a laboratory. ‘Take this envelope to a post office. Record the tracking number’. The instructions were clear; the process well organised.
I took the envelope to the post office.
“I can’t touch THAT!” exclaimed the counter clerk in horror. “I’m not allowed to handle it! You must put it in the box outside.”
“But the instructions say, ‘Do not put in a post box’.”
“It’s a priority mail box. You have to use that.”
Don’t get irritated, turn it into a story, I told myself. “Oh, and I need to post this as well.” I had a large envelope to send to Scotland. It’d been on my table at home for days, I’d handled it many times, licked closed the seal, breathed on it and mauled it about. The clerk picked it up unconcerned, weighed it, stuck a stamp on it and threw it into the waiting sack. I took my small package, in its three clinical seals, to the box outside… Ho hum, logic evaporated sometime in March.
So there I was, equipped with test result, face mask slowly and resolutely carving my ears off, on my way. Heathrow to Charles de Gaulle airport, Paris, also quiet. A wait of six hours – fortunately, KLM extended their loyalty levels for another year and I still have the perk of lounge access, that makes air travel almost pleasant. An overnight flight to Nairobi. Entry was the simplest in years and I was soon in the early morning sapphire blue sky sunlight at Nairobi’s 5000 feet. Here, five more hours to wait, and a mile to lug my bag to the smaller terminal for a short internal flight upcountry to Eldoret, where I touched down mid-afternoon on the 19th.
Rico and Adelight, with bright three year old Maria, were waiting with a hired driver to bring us back to Kitale up the congested East African Highway, that carries so much of the traffic from far off Mombasa on the coast to the interior in Uganda and Rwanda. Sometime after six, I finally achieved my goal of a Tusker on the porch with my old friend of many years, surrounded by the smiles and cheer of the family of girls. I’d made it.
I decided years ago never to listen to the doubts of ‘what ifs’ and ‘if onlys’, words that limit a million dreams and so many lives. I’ll let the future take care of its unknown self. I’m in Africa until March. Maybe longer…
Four days later and I would have been imprisoned in Little Britain with everyone else.
It’s easy to settle in, in Africa. That’s an inevitable generalisation on a continent of 54 countries and one point two billion people, but there’s an honest warmth and expression of emotions almost everywhere that is one of the aspects that attracts me back to this continent time and again. I first ‘discovered’ the attractions of Africa in 1987, with my first Sahara crossing on my motorbike. Since that time, this numbers my 34th journey I think, thirteen of them with a motorbike, free to roam.
Back in 1987, in the last cheap hotel in Morocco, I met three Dutch adventurers. “Would you like some soup?” asked Liesbeth, as she brewed up a meal on a gas stove on the wing of their old Land Rover. What I wanted that evening was company, more than soup, after a week riding alone through southern Morocco. We three became immediate friends and travelled together across the world’s largest desert to West Africa, me on my African Elephant, my old motorbike, and them in their aged vehicle. The best days of my life. Three friendships that remain strong, because of the time we shared.
Especially warm is my brotherhood with Rico, for that early trip changed both our lives fundamentally. I stopped my footloose world travels and hardly journeyed again beyond Africa. Rico committed the rest of his life to live in Africa. He hardly returned to Holland, working as a mechanic with various aid organisations, based in war zones, famines and strife – a hard introduction. He eventually based himself in East Africa, moved to live in the northern deserts of Kenya, married a Turkana woman and adopted numerous children. Some of those children, almost all girls, are now producing grandchildren. After the death of his wife, Anna, he remarried lovely Adelight, now my ‘sister’ and Scrabble competitor, moved to Kitale, and took into the house more young women, some of them Adelight’s junior sisters, others unrelated. Rico and Adelight have their own small African, delightful three year old Maria, the apple of everyone’s eyes. Together, this makes the happiest family it’s my privilege to know – and join. I’m with them now. Totally accepted into the extended family, an uncle, brother and friend.
With Adelight, I have become a fond friend. Of an evening, we play Scrabble, frequently a close competition, despite English being her second language. On my first Christmas here, we were in a big supermarket in Eldoret for me to buy some gifts for the family, that I hardly knew then. Without my knowledge Adelight had steered me to a shelf of board games. “Oh, I think the family would enjoy Scrabble,” she declared guilelessly. Little did I know that I now had an occupation for every evening in the house. She was the enthusiast. No one else plays!
We also enjoy our trips to town together. I have infinite patience with her shopping trips, a quality I’ve never possessed at home. There’s so much activity to watch and people to interact with, a raised eyebrow here, a wriggle of the hand, a wide smile; fruit sellers to exchange a joke; a child to talk to; boda-boda boys to laugh with. People in Africa meet my eye and give just whatever cheek or cheer they receive. It’s lively and fun, warm-hearted exchanges, laughter and human contact. No one looks away and a mzungu attracts attention everywhere. I travel as a celebrity. It is infinite fun. I found myself smiling to myself, beneath an unhappy virus face covering…
It’s mandatory to wear face covering in all public places, in the street, on the roads and even in cars. “Watch out,” says Rico, “a mzungu is attractive for the police to stop and fine!” It’s Christmas time too, a time when the police gather money for their holidays. The smiles, partially what brings me so much back to Africa, are sadly hidden today. Out in the rural areas, the face coverings are more relaxed, as indeed they often are in town, where many seem to wear them as a chin-strap decoration. Beyond that, restrictions are few and neighbouring borders open (more than can be said for Little Britain today). I believe there’s still a curfew in place from 10 to 4 at night, which will affect me not at all, for in Africa I sleep well and long. It appeared to me, on evidence of a morning in town, that track and trace is more efficient than that imposed at a cost of many millions by Boris the Bodger. We were expected to sign in to the post office and our temperatures are taken at supermarkets and offices.
But it’s the streets that supply my entertainment. Crowded and colourful, all African life is here. As Adelight shops, I watch. There’s chaos in the Transmatt Supermarket, trolleys and people everywhere in the before-Christmas rush. Transmatt is an Indian business, common here in East Africa where many businessmen are Asians, often of many generations’ standing, but usually not much integrated with their Black countrymen. Asians often remain aloof. The name’s a diminutive of Trans Mattress, doubtless the origins of the trade. In a corner of the store, a booth stocks the booze. That’s my department this Christmas time. I purchase a big box of red wine. The girls at home only drink alcohol on high days and holidays, birthdays if they are fortunate and only when anyone can afford it. It’s my pleasure here to provide some treats, a role I relish in this happy family. Adelight and I buy a present for little Maria. Maria is a delight, Rico and Adelight’s own contribution to the family. All the other girls, who look to Adelight as mum and Rico as father, are from various sources. Lovely Scovia, one of my all time favourite Africans – pretty, endlessly cheerful, cheeky with her old uncle, positive and a pleasure for the eyes in her short, wide skirt, just turned 22 last week. She’s actually Adelight’s junior sister, adopted, with younger sister Marion, into the family as a sort of replacement for dowry – and because Rico has over his years in Africa adopted a variety girls and educated them and brought them up. Now some of them are producing his grandchildren, spread across the country, and even the world. There’ve been at least a dozen young women who call Rico dad – many of them unrelated to one another, but more ‘family’ than any other I know. Bo, now about fifteen, is a child of one of the original Rico Girls, a sort of granddaughter. Totally unrelated to Scovia and Marion – or to Rose, now in Nairobi but originally rescued from the Kitale streets after running away from an abusive auntie, or to Maureen, now down in Mombasa, another ‘original’ that I first knew aged about two or three back in 2002 – Bo is sister to the older girls, daughter to Rico and Adelight, just as much as if she were their blood relation. In Africa, the extended family is such a flexible unit, such that I also become uncle to these girls, father-figure to my Ugandan family, and now granddad to small, happy, muddy Ugandan children.
For Maria’s Christmas present I buy a pink schoolbag. She’s an intelligent, bright three years old and will go to school in January. She’s excited about that and will probably spend Christmas wearing Uncle Jonathan’s lurid soap-pink backpack. We’ll put some pencils and notebooks in it for her.
I pay with my credit card. We’re in the modern, consumer world now. A smiling young man helps pack our purchases and jokes that my backpack, now full of no less than £56 worth of booze, will be too heavy for me to carry. I’m impossibly ‘old’ to his 20 year old eyes. In Africa, where average life expectancy is 61.4. I’m already a decade beyond that. Riding my motorbike about his continent. Not surprising I have gained celebrity status now. I laugh him off and shoulder my bag. A good looking, open-faced young man, he carries the big box of groceries to the car with us, cheerful, helpful, smiling brightly. Outside the supermarket, noise fills the sun-dazzled street. There are traders with barrows of fruit and tomatoes, bags of potatoes, succulent pineapples, small red onions, mangoes, huge avocados. A pickup is piled high with enormous cabbages, giant ballooning cartoon vegetables. It’s astonishing how things grow in Africa, given rain and sunshine. There’s been plenty of rain this year, too much. Climate change is affecting the weather systems of Africa even more than the northern world. And it’s more crucial here, where subsistence farming keeps many families alive. A small change in the times of the rains can bring untold suffering – and often does. Too much or too little, and people have no spare resources to tide them over. It’s a hand to mouth economy. Too much rain; too little rain and hunger is an opportunistic enemy. Since I left in March, it has rained a great deal. The trees outside ‘Jonathan’s House’, my simple room here in the family shamba, beneath an avocado tree, have grown by maybe ten feet in height in nine months. Many of the trees and plants are double the size they were when I left.
But there are plenty of vegetables this year, piled high at the roadside as we weave between knackered boda-boda motorbikes like insects. These are the employment opportunity in all Africa now: 100cc Chinese irritants ridden by maniacs for whom time is money. A passenger here, a load of crates, sheets of plywood balanced across the seat and rack, settees, iron rods, cement, vegetables, schoolchildren, teetering boxes heaped high, a passenger with his leg in plaster stuck dangerously sideways, a crutch across his legs. Sometimes a boda-boda carries another motorbike to repair, strapped on its side behind the rider. Frequently, with heavy loads or multiple passengers, the rider sits with his balls on the tank, the bike wobbling on the broken roads. The hospitals fill up and accidents are common. But in a subsistence economy, you do what you can to earn the school fees and put food on the family table.
From a woman at a picnic table under a bright sunshade advertising inevitable phone companies, we buy a new sim card for my cheap phone. We register it to Adelight’s Kenyan ID. It’s too complicated in these money-laundering days for me to get one in my name. My motorbike ‘belongs’ to Adelight for the same reason. A pretty little girl, about four, gazes fascinated into my blue eyes, coyly smiling at the mzungu from amongst her mother’s skirts. I love these little encounters, but I can’t hear her whispered name. Around us whirls Kitale street life.
We take my pannier bag, that needs a repair, to look for a ‘fundi’, or repairman. These clever fellows own a sewing machine for their livelihood and sit beside the street under shady arcades outside small lock-up shop booths, most of them garishly painted in the livery of the various mobile phone companies. Africa has adopted the mobile with alacrity. It jumped the whole landline generation and went straight to cell phones. There are more mobiles in Africa than either Europe or America, they say. Fingers twitch everywhere, even amongst the boda-boda riders, pressing through the crowds, the cars and smoke-belching trucks and pick ups, carelessly texting as they ride, or with phone tucked in beneath the regulatory, but usually ignored yellow helmet, yelling into their phones as they ride. The fundi we need isn’t at his machine. We sit on a convenient bench nearby to wait, but he doesn’t come back. I watch the activity swirl around me. An elderly gent has old leather shoes, once fashionable in another existence, with long pointed toes that curl upwards like bananas. Everyone wears mtumba clothes, the secondhand rejects from our European and American charity shops. I wear it too, and often reimport my wardrobe! Adelight’s a star at finding what I need in the mountainous piles of clothing on street-side stalls. She delights in an order from me for some more shorts as she flings aside festoons of clothes, bought in great bales by traders from middlemen in the cities. It’s all the stuff we don’t want in our profligate Western lives where consumption is a thing of fashion rather than necessity. But it’s wonderful to see the creative uses to which the girls at home can mix and match their fashions – and look terrific. Probably I’ll get some mtumba wear under the winking Christmas tree. Christmas presents here are refreshingly unmaterial. No one counts the cost as we do in the West. They are happy for any small gift. We accept from the heart in Africa, the way gifts are given. The most difficult lesson for visitors to learn. But one of the happiest.
So, what about the Coronavirus crisis that is rocking the world? What about poor Africa, on which the rich world dumps so many problems, seldom of the continent’s making?
There are various theories as to why this pandemic has affected Africa least of all except Oceania – which, let’s face it, is a random collection of far separated islands. According to a Guardian article – and it’s rare to even see Africa mentioned in Western news, unless it’s disaster, unrest, famine or mayhem – a mere 57,000 people have been reported to have died in from Coronavirus. That’s 57,000 out of about one point two BILLION people. Pretty insignificant. Less, so far, than Britain with our mere 67 million population. Yes, there will be a certain under-reporting of death here, where there are few checks on causes of death and doctors few and far between (many of them working in the NHS and similar institutions in the West). One of the few countries in Africa to have suffered more seriously in the pandemic is South Africa. I note that it’s also the only one, in my experience of 23 African nations, in which I have seen old people’s homes, largely populated by elderly women of European, white origin; where junk food chains are popular and where the Afrikaans nation tends to obesity. I just comment, for I don’t know the significance of these observations…
There’s a totally different attitude to death in Africa. More fatalistic. No one demands eternal life, frequently supported by drugs, as we seem to do now in the West. You get old – if you’re lucky – you die. You get ill, you die. It’s a sad fact of African life. So very many people I knew during my African travels have died – young and old, children, teenagers, chiefs, farmers, male and female. I have witnessed the demise of many more acquaintances in my African circle than in my European circle, by a factor of tens of times. There’s scarcity of treatment for common diseases, almost no surgical intervention for complex conditions. Just a fact of life here. Life is short and risky.
The average age of people dying from the virus in Britain is 82.5 years. Average life expectancy is 81.5 years. So the majority of those dying are the very old. Average life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is a shocking 61.4. Shocking that is, until you remember that it’s not so long ago that we in the West had similar life expectancy. Our perceptions of age and expectancy of long life have changed hugely in the last century. 100 years ago, I’d have been amongst the aged and revered already. Here I am still riding my motorbike about a foreign continent. Occasionally I meet very old Africans, in their 80s and 90s, one or two even make it to the century. But they are a rarity. An old man whom I have photographed a couple of times in nearby Kessup, died three weeks ago at the extreme age of 93. In Navrongo I met an old man who was perhaps as old as 110, gauging from his memories, for of course no one kept records back then. His wife was over 100. These people are celebrities in their communities and very rare.
So Africa has a generally young population. The median age of Africans is a mere 19.4 years – Uganda, a bit over 15 years, and in Britain it’s 40.6 years. Factor number one in the light footprint of the pandemic.
Other factors are proposed. Africans have a far higher natural immunity to so many other diseases. We’ve lost that immunity with our medicines and ‘safety’ measures, let alone the way we treat our foodstuffs and agriculture. Africans live largely out of doors, particularly in rural areas. This, we know, limits transmission. All life is in the streets and fields, and even at home much of everyday life takes place in the open air, cooking over charcoal or sticks in the compound, eating outside, in some places even sleeping outside in the heat of African seasons. I ascribe a good deal of my own strength and health to staying a quarter if the past decade in Africa, with pretty casual regard to hygiene and cleanliness – if the locals drink the water and eat the food, so do I. My immunity is a great pride on my journeys; I seldom succumb to even the trots. It’s been acquired the hard way as I drink local brews from old calabashes and recycled drugs containers and eat roadside snacks.
Obesity, hypertension and diabetes are rarities in Africa, many of these conditions caused or exacerbated by our wealthy lifestyles, lack of exercise and industrial food. Ironically, you may live a shorter life here, but it’s probably healthier for most. Many of those suffering most from the virus in the sick West have these underlying health problems.
Then there’s the possibility that vitamin D is a useful deterrent in Coronavirus infection rates. Scientists have put forward this theory. Vitamin D is synthesised from natural food products in mammals by exposure to sunlight – actually, it’s considered a hormone, rather than a vitamin, but let’s not go that deep! There’s infrequently any lack of sunlight over most of this continent.
When I left – in a hurry – in March, it was supposed that the virus would spread rapidly here as the weather cooled, but it seems that this did not materialise. So it’s probably the relative youth of the population that is keeping the virus more at bay than anywhere else but Oceania.
Shamefully, with the richest 14% of the world’s nations snapping up or reserving 53% of the available vaccines (in Canada, enough to vaccinate everyone five times, in Britain three times…) it’s just as well that cash-strapped Africa is less exposed to the disaster. For once in its history, Africa is benefitting from some of its demographic and economic problems.
We’re running up to Christmas, not a rabid commercial festival here. We will eat some treats and the girls will enjoy the wine I bought. For fun, I’ll wrap it under the little winking tree in the corner of the living room – just as in poorer days, my mother would include new school shoes amongst my presents. Expectations are modest, a few small gifts and plenty of family fun. The Ghost of Christmas Past, in fact. I’ve a pile of small gifts in glittery Chinese wrapping in the corner of my room, visited in anticipation by chirpy little Maria, the family’s joy.
All day long, the girls accept their duties without rancour, cleaning the house, preparing meals, mountains of washing up, cleaning the compound, watering the chickens, hand-washing piles of clothes in their unwritten rota. Later, Scovia attempts her first pizza – but who’s looking at the oddly shaped pizza when Scovia is holding it, this most attractive of all Africans? I catch Marion gazing intently into the microwave, giggling when I snap her picture. Bo washes saucepans – and there’s no hot tap. Everyone just gets on with what needs to be done. Uncomplaining. There’s never discord in this happy house and no one is addicted to devices.
The sun’s shining warmly. Adelight’s twin sister’s charming daughter, Shamilla, eight years and a great favourite with us all, has arrived. Not surprisingly, she loves to be in this family, where the young women pamper the two small girls – their nieces I suppose, but in an African family no one much bothers to assess the relationship. Scovia, lovely Scovia who never fails to bring a wide smile to my face, is in the kitchen. Soon we will open the presents that she has arranged on a table behind me on the porch. She’s hung some twinkling lights in the blazing sunset. She went to town this morning. Shamilla being a recent announcement, I needed some extra small gifts, so I commissioned Scovia. Brilliantly, she found a small cardboard suitcase on the market filled with beads and jewellery-making items, thrown out by some rich child but now to have a wonderful new life in Africa. I spent an hour wrapping Maria’s new schoolbag in many layers of brown paper and string, a treat I always enjoyed as a child. This is the spirit of Christmas.
CHRISTMAS DAY, MORNING. Christmas music plays from someone’s phone. Adelight and Scovia pluck our supper, chickens from their own farm here in the shamba. Bo and Marion have yet to appear. Shamilla is playing with the beads and threads that Scovia so cleverly found. Who cares that they’re secondhand? They don’t.
Last evening we enjoyed the best of Christmases Past, with a cheerful party on the porch, during which the smile never left my face. This is how Christmas was meant to be; not extravagance, cost-counting in exchange of gifts with guilt or pride. No expensive ‘devices’, new phones, ‘designer labels’ – materialist insignificance. To see the delight expressed at a new pair of sandals, a small box of lipsticks or nail varnishes, a bottle of something called ‘body splash’, a box of crayons, is humbling. A few glasses of sweet red wine is a treat for the older girls. There’s laughter and jokes, cheek and cheer, heartfelt love and generosity, sharing – of emotion, not Stuff.
Maria sits beside me at the table, with paintbrush and colouring book, new gifts. The sun is bright in the garden. Rico flattens and recycles the wrapping paper. Nothing is discarded unnecessarily in this economy.
Christmas Day is ahead. Tonight we’ll barbecue chickens on a spit in the garden around a cheerful fire. More family will visit: Halima, a girl that Rico took in years ago, when her guardians had to move away, and her small family who now live here in Kitale. Others will come and go, greet and chatter.
The presents I received last night, were so thoughtful. More valuable than all the Stuff you could think of. Not the mtumba tee shorts I expected. From Rico, wrapped in many layers, as I had done with Maria’s bright pink schoolbag, was a tiny tin of fine Sahara sand from one of the first days we met in January 1987. Kept for almost three and a half decades, since that journey that so changed our lives.
From the three young women, I found a water bottle for my journey – but it wasn’t that simple gift that gave me a knot of emotion. It was the letter, written on a sheet of exercise book paper decorated with florescent felt-tip hearts and the words ‘lots of love’.
Their words contained the REAL Christmas spirit. That Ghost of Christmases Past, before it became a commercial festival for so many of us:
‘Dear Uncle Jonathan
We are glad that you became part of our big happy family. At first when you came to Kitale for the first time, we received you warmly because the minute you stepped out of the car, you kept on a nice warm smile that assured us you were a nice sweet person.
As time went by, we kept on knowing you more and loving you more because you showed us gratitude and love in return and that made us to keep on those smiles that we keep on showing you and in return it has also helped you in writing journals, hahahaha!
To make it clear and short, WE LOVE YOU SO MUCH UNCLE JONATHAN!!!
Lots of love from Marion, Scovia and Bo
This, from warm young women, young enough to be grandchildren, expressed with love and equality. My escape is complete. I am with family.
To my readers, I wish everyone as happy a Christmas as you can manage with all the antisocial restrictions. I know just how fortunate I am to be with my families – FAMILY as much as if we were blood related. It’s the wonder of this continent for me, the strength and flexibility of the extended family, in which even I, from another culture, generation and economy, am adopted from the heart. The most difficult lesson for a non-African to learn is to accept from the heart, the manner in which friendship, love and support are given here.